What Monkeys Teach Us About Social Media


chimp-computer-RT-thanksA social media platform like Twitter is a kind of social science laboratory that can be sliced in various ways. (For some serious social media slicing and dicing, check out the work of my friend Dan Zarrella.)

Traditional community dynamics apply – there are high-status individuals who have legions of followers and wield considerable influence, and lower-status individuals who have little impact on the community. Principles like reciprocity are at work – if one individual retweets another’s post, it creates a little social obligation for the second to reciprocate. (As in real life, if there’s a big status difference between the two people, the drive to reciprocate may be much smaller or even nonexistent.) New research on monkeys shows that the tracking of social gestures may be hardwired into our brains.

Duke researchers studied the brain activities of monkeys as they gave juice to other monkeys. While the monkeys would usually consume the juice themselves if they could, when that wasn’t possible they tended to give it to other monkeys. The scientists found that while several areas of the monkey brains lit up as they either consumed or gave away the juice, one area in particular, the anterior cingulate gyrus, was activated only when they gifted the juice to another monkey. The scientists believe that acts of social generosity are recorded by this brain structure.

This particular experiment didn’t examine how the monkey brains responded to the generosity of others or how those social gestures might be processed and recorded, though it would be surprising if something similar wasn’t taking place.

Most scientists think that acts of social generosity and altruistic behavior provided an evolutionary advantage to primates, since community and social structures were key to their survival.

While we don’t know that human brains operate exactly like those of the monkeys in this experiment, it is probable that there is substantial similarity. Human behavior is far more complex, of course, but the basic wiring for social behavior is no doubt still part of our brains.

From Juice to Likes

Social media tools like Twitter provide an opportunity for us to interact with others in a relatively simple fashion. We can give or receive useful information (and funny cat videos), offer compliments or criticism directly, etc. We can also grant little favors to others by sharing, liking, +1-ing, their content and ideas.

Is it unrealistic to think that our brains are as good at tracking our social favors as the monkeys are about doling out sips of juice?

Neuromarketing takeaway: Be generous with those favors, your brain (and probably everyone else’s) is keeping score!

  1. Brett Warner says

    That’s really interesting. I’d love to see if physical brain structure changes over time with acts of kindness similar to the studies on meditation’s effects on the brain. Obviously it’d be nearly impossible to put a test like that together though.

  2. Alex says

    So is it fair to say that the anterior cingulate gyrus is involved in philanthropic donations as well?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Alex, I’ve already taken one leap of faith by extending the monkey findings to humans. It certainly seems possible that the same structure could be involved, but I’d also guess that a donation that’s more than casual would be a more complex social/psychological act. It may be a “status display,” for example, that demonstrates power and wealth. Or, it could be a genuine, rational desire to help a cause of particular importance to the individual. Or both.

      I think the monkey research may be more applicable to small gestures like buying an overpriced candy bar you won’t eat for the neighbor’s kid’s fundraiser.


      1. Alex says

        Proving your point about reciprocation, I just wanted to say thanks for replying.

  3. Roger Dooley says

    That would be interesting to study, Brett. It wouldn’t be surprising if repeated social activity for a long period actually did produce some structural differences, or at least change the way existing structures are used.


  4. Karthik says

    Hi Roger. Did the scientists use MRI to track the activity of the monkey brains while they were sharing/reciprocating? Or is this some other kind of complicated technique?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Karthik, in this case they used implanted electrodes to measure the activity in different parts of the brain. To extend the work to humans, they’d no doubt have to use fMRI. Volunteers for skull drilling are hard to find!


  5. Jeremy says

    I have heard of a study similar to this one….really interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  6. bonooobong says

    I really like you point on the analogy between the social behavior of monkey and the sociology of the web2 and social media. Sharing is caring – that’s true for the social media and the monkeys know it as well. It’s some kind of natural social behavior, and it’s not only a human thing. Thanks for sharing your interesting article!

  7. Mark Morphew says

    Hi Roger,

    That was a great read, I think we all have a lot more in common with monkeys than we would like to admit .


Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.